Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made no secret of his desire to revitalize the U.S. war on drugs, and new reports indicate he intends to begin by reinstituting harsher sentences for low-level offenders.
Sessions is considering reversing Obama-era guidelines that directed federal prosecutors to avoid charging low-level drug offenders with crimes that carry harsh mandatory-minimum sentences, U.S. officials told the Washington Post. These sentencing laws have led the United States to have the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and bringing them back would mark Sessions’ first concrete move in his promised crackdown on drugs.
In 2013, then-Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. sent a memo to federal prosecutors instructing them not to charge defendants with sentences that would trigger mandatory-minimum sentences unless they were violent, were leaders in drug organizations, or met similar qualifications.
“Long sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenses do not promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation,” Holder wrote in the memo. “Moreover, rising prison costs have resulted in reduced spending on criminal justice initiatives, including spending on law enforcement agents, prosecutors, and prevention and intervention programs.”
But opponents of Holder’s move say removing prosecutors’ ability to bring such charges blunted law enforcement’s ability to fight larger drug rings, because low-level traffickers who knew they could escape long prison sentences no longer had any incentive to help law enforcement build cases.
That may soon change — Sessions is reportedly considering instructing prosecutors to bring the harshest possible charges against all levels of drug offenders. Sessions is also reportedly considering reviving the widespread use of charging offenders with “enhancements,” which can further lengthen sentences for certain defendants who have already been convicted of felony drug crimes. Holder’s memo also largely ended that practice.
Sessions has long supported harsher sentencing. While still a senator, Sessions helped block a bill that would’ve reformed some mandatory-minimum sentencing laws. And in March, while speaking to a crowd in Richmond, Virginia, Sessions announced, “We must act decisively at all levels — federal, state and local — to reverse this rise in violent crime and keep our people safe.”
Yet critics of mandatory-minimum laws point out that reducing crime is more complicated than just throwing offenders into prison for the rest of their lives. The United States also already has record rates of incarceration: Currently, more than 1.5 million people are incarcerated across the country. Such mass incarceration disproportionately affects people of color, as black men are six times as likely to be imprisoned and jailed than white men.
“As the Attorney General has consistently said, we are reviewing all Department of Justice policies to focus on keeping Americans safe and will be issuing further guidance and support to our prosecutors executing this priority—including an updated memorandum on charging for all criminal cases,” Justice Department spokesperson Ian Prior said in a statement.